Barriers Abound for Immigrants Learning English

Immigrants' English skills are often part of the U.S. debate over foreign workers. Demand for English classes far outstrips supply, even as work, family duties and other obstacles stand in the way of efforts to master a new language.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's a common thread in the debate on immigration. Americans ask, why don't immigrants learn English? When we have stories featuring Spanish-speaking immigrants, we often get e-mails to that effect.

Well, NPR's Jennifer Ludden set out to find answers and she has this report.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Maria Morales(ph) is a hotel housekeeper in Maryland. While most of her colleagues are Hispanic, her supervisors only speak English, so Morales tries her best like when she asks for supplies.

Ms. MARIA MORALES (Hotel Housekeeper, Maryland): I need the towels. I need washcloths. I need sheets.

LUDDEN: Sheets?

Ms. MORALES: Sheets, yes.

LUDDEN: She hesitates to say the word sheets, knowing it can be a big gaff if she mispronounces it. It may sound like Morales recently arrived from her native El Salvador. In fact, she's been in the U.S. 13 years, and has been studying English since 2001.

Unidentified Woman #2: Now, everybody. Excuse me.

Unidentified Group: Excuse me.

Unidentified Woman #2: What time is it?

Unidentified Group: What time is it?

LUDDEN: Morales learns in these classroom trailers of Prince George's Community College in Maryland. And just getting here is a triumph of sorts.

Unidentified Woman #2: Excuse me.

Unidentified Group: Excuse me.

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, you can do better than that. Excuse me.

LUDDEN: Educators say a lack of transportation and childcare are common barriers. Despite that, there are many more immigrants who want to sign up than slots available. A study last year by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials found that over half of publicly funded classes had waitlists, some up to three years. Then, once in the program, Prince George's Adult Education director Barbara Denman says keeping immigrants at class can be a problem. Take landscapers.

Ms. BARBARA DENMAN (Director, Prince George's County Adult Education Program): In the spring semester when the schedules change, particularly after daylight savings time kicks in, we'll lose those students because their employment requires them now to work much longer hours, and they can be very long hours.

LUDDEN: Housekeeper Maria Morales admits she hasn't had much time to study these past six years. She's been holding down two jobs. Another student, 38-year-old Adolfo Anton(ph) said he found it impossible to take English while he was working two shifts at a cement block factory from 12 noon until 3:00 in the morning. When he got a new schedule a year ago, Anton signed up for English two mornings a week.

Mr. ADOLFO ANTON (Factory Worker): Because it's important in my job. My supervisor no speak Spanish, and it's difficult for me understand English.

LUDDEN: A few years ago, the Department of Homeland Security created an office of citizenship with one of its goals to better promote English, but it suffered from lack of funding.

Mr. MICHAEL FIX (Vice President and Director of Studies, Migration Policy Institute): The policy continues to lack demography.

LUDDEN: Michael Fix is with the Migration Policy Institute. He says the U.S. invests far less in language courses for immigrants than some other developed nations, and services are spotty. For every federal dollar they get, states like California and Florida spend eight dollars of their own money.

Mr. FIX: If you'll look at some other states, say, Kansas, Nebraska or Texas, all now important immigrant-receiving states, they spend 30 cents for every dollar that they receive from the federal government. This is a kind of discrepancy state-by-state that you don't see in many other grants, programs.

LUDDEN: Some argue the current influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants poses a unique threat to English. Even some Latinos say it's just too easy to live in a Spanish bubble especially if you work in a field like construction or meatpacking. Yet others see little that's new.

History professor Alan Kraut of American University says a century and more ago, first generation immigrants also were slow to learn English.

Dr. ALAN KRAUT (Professor of History, American University): In places like Iowa and other areas of the Midwest with high concentrations of Germans, German was the language of everyday life and German was also the language of the public schools. People paid taxes, schools were financed, and classes taught in German.

LUDDEN: Back at Prince George's, factory worker Adolfo Anton says he loves his English classes and plans to keep them up as long as he can. By the way, as with a lot of people you may hear on the radio, I asked Anton to switch to Spanish so he can express himself more fully.

Mr. ANTON: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: To learn English, he says, means you can communicate if there's an emergency, or you can get a better job. Anton says he hopes with better English, he can eventually become a supervisor.

Mr. ANTON: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Prince George's program director Barbara Denman says it takes years to master a foreign language, and the key part is gaining the courage to make mistakes. If Americans want immigrants to improve their English, Denman says there's a way everyone can help them, be patient and listen.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.